Goodbye to Dark Mark
Tuesday February 22 2022
Why is my story worth telling?
I haven’t a clue.
But here it is.
sideways in reverse
(but always moving)
In 2012, a friend came to visit us in Los Angeles, at our little house in Echo Park. She wanted to go out & do something while she was there—go to a show, see some live music—something Los-Angeles-y I guess.
We were homebodies even in L.A. so I had no idea what events might be coming up. Where to take her, what to do or see.
I spent a few minutes on twitter (which I’d recently discovered) & found a local record shop giving away tickets for Mark Lanegan at the Echoplex. It was a familiar venue, walkable—under a mile from our house—& the tickets came with a copy of Lanegan’s new album, Blues Funeral.
I’d seen some reviews for the LP but hadn’t paid them much attention. “Hype”, I figured—the kind of raves that seem to accompany any late gasp from a 90s artist. Seattle music has a big place in my heart, but all I knew about Lanegan was that one Screaming Trees tune on the Singles soundtrack—& I’ll be honest—back in 1992 “Nearly Lost You” was not my favorite thing on Singles.
(I do have a track record of missing things the first time around that will become important to me later. It would be nice to correct that someday.)
Oh wait, yes—I dug through my boxes of CDs & found an old copy, bought used, of Lanegan’s first solo LP: The Winding Sheet. I bought it for “Where Did You Sleep Last Night?”, the Leadbelly cover that featured Kurt & Krist from Nirvana & which inspired Nirvana’s performance of the same song a few years later on their Unplugged disc. Elsewhere on the same record Kurt played & sang harmonies on “Down In The Dark”, an incredibly catchy piece of twilit hard pop that I first heard on some file-sharing site, mislabeled as a Nirvana outtake.
& oh yeah, the Nirvana box set an old housemate gave me for my birthday one year—wasn’t Lanegan on that somewhere? Or at least mentioned in the liner notes—another Leadbelly tune, “Ain’t It A Shame”, which came from the same sessions as “Where Did You Sleep”.
judgement time is here
So I picked up my free copy of Blues Funeral with mild interest—maybe I streamed a few tracks first to see if this all would even be worthwhile, idk idk—& it didn’t suck, & I picked up the tickets, & we went to the show.
I really have no idea if my friend had a good time. It was never easy to tell, & we don’t talk anymore so I can’t ask. She was a deadhead by birthright but often surprised me with the breadth of her taste—other times with the rock-hard impenetrability of her biases.
Me, though—I was mesmerized.
The music was not what I’d expected—hardly the big guitar RAWK sensibilities of early grunge. I heard hints of keys, drums that sounded like machines. Relentless driving rock music. I couldn’t place an antecedent, but now I understand a little better. 80s rock with a hair in the lens, filmed in a muddy rain then left to bake in Southern California sunlight & neon.
The singer stood stock still, hanging over the mic at the center of the stage. He never once took off his cap or his dark glasses.
bleeding muddy water
Blues Funeral is a double-LP. Within a week I was playing it endlessly. Every song is a classic. The slow tunes reminded me of Fred Neil, if Fred was into heavy rock. Shades of his “Look Over Yonder” or Tim Buckley’s “Driftin'”—the whole mix munged through a Marshall with a broken speaker until time. just. stopped.
The fast tunes were headbangers, dark monologues you couldn’t help dance to. & if you tuned into the lyrics there was always something to grab. A less self-conscious Tom Waits might have written such things. Lanegan lived the life Waits likes to sing about (& I love Tom, don’t get me wrong).
& look, I can’t detail every time I’ve listened to a Mark Lanegan record, or what I think about each one, or why. How his voice got me through long nights when my brain just wanted me dead. But here’s a few more anecdotes, if you will.
Z didn’t go with us to the Echoplex show—just two tickets, alas—but after listening to me rave about it for months, I logged on again & won two MORE tickets to see Mark play outdoors, somewhere in or near Griffith Park.
The show was lower energy than the first one I’d seen. We stood two feet from the singer. He towered over us—a big man. Mark didn’t seem super-stoked to be there, though he was such an undemonstrative performer that honestly I don’t know how we thought we could tell. Later we found out he lived not far from the venue, so maybe it was a roll-out-of-bed-&-do-the-show-&-can-we-go-home-now scene.
But Z heard what I’d heard—whatever it was that Lanegan had, that whiskey priest power & glory. Even on a half-power night. We were captivated.
love rain down like sugar so sweet
Fast forward a few years. We moved back to Seattle. Mark’s music, even when produced in Los Angeles, is always a perfect soundtrack to the landscape here in the Great Pacific Northwest that so many people call “gloomy”. I’ve always found it beautiful, & remain forever grateful to the friend who first invited me out here to see it.
A local festival in our old Ballard neighborhood, the 2015 Edith Macefield Festival, was to feature a performance by Mark Lanegan. We bought tickets.
In classic Seattle fashion, the Macefield fest is named for the woman who refused to sell her house to developers (for a million buckos) when they built the Ballard Trader Joe’s complex. As such, they had to build AROUND her house—a strange little divot in the tide of monocultural progress. The house remains tho Edith has long since passed.
Mark played on an outdoor stage on a side street in what is sometimes called Old Ballard. It was just after dark & if I recall correctly a light rain was falling. (I could be making that up, but let’s just say it’s true. It was October after all.)
He was accompanied only by guitarist Jeff Fielder, & although I had heard him play on records, Fielder’s accompaniment to Lanegan that night sent me running home to practice. He’s everything a guitarist needs to be—not that we can’t be other things, but—it’s all there. Energy, attitude, delicacy & nuance & taste. Everything you need.
On our way to the show we stopped at a record store, Ballard’s Sonic Boom, & picked up a copy of Lanegan’s Imitations—a surprising collection of standards such as “You Only Live Twice,” “Mack The Knife,” “Autumn Leaves” & John Cale’s “I’m Not The Loving Kind,” with an all-star band including Duff McKagan & Barrett Martin—& a copy of Screaming Trees’ Last Words.
Last Words was the third album Screaming Trees recorded after making the savvy decision to let Dark Mark start writing his own lyrics—but by the time they set these songs down, no one wanted them. The band broke up shortly after.
Barrett Martin, the Trees’ drummer, released the recordings on his own label years later. They are fine, & in my mind they compete with Sweet Oblivion for the group’s Greatest Work—in part because Endino’s beautifully stripped down final mix allows the songs & the players to speak out clearly.
walking the floor with the ghosts
When the Macefield set ended, we waited in line for autographs.
Lanegan had a reputation for surliness, brusqueness, unfriendliness. A lot of my favorite artists have that rep—I have it myself at times—& I tend to find that it is propagated by shallow, intrusive, selfish people who demand time & attention & then feel hurt when they don’t receive what they insist is their due.
I try very hard not to be one of those people. It was awkward & difficult to ask for an autograph at all. Z probably had to ask—people like her on sight. I have often had the opposite experience.
But you know, it’s funny. Mark lit up a bit when he saw us. He didn’t know us, we’d never met before, there was a long line of people behind us—but it seemed like he wanted to chat. He talked about how this was ‘home,’ even though he hadn’t lived here in years & never would again. He signed our records. I told him we were on our way to have dinner with the man who recorded Last Words (we avoided a name drop, he knew who we were talking about) & he said to say hello (we did). We made a point of not overstaying, though again, we had the clear sense he wouldn’t have minded if we did.
I wish we could have spent more time. But I’m grateful for the few minutes we had.
find me an angel, lend me their wings
I’m a believer in direct transmission. I can’t say for sure what, if anything, was transmitted. Something, though. I’m sure of that.
There’s a story Bob Dylan likes to tell about going to see Buddy Holly right before the plane crash. Buddy looked into his eyes & ‘something was transmitted’.
It’s never been clear if this story is ‘true’ or not—if it ‘happened’, that is—but it’s true in every way that matters. Even if Bob never made it to see Buddy, still something was transmitted.
Screaming Trees Sweet Oblivion is an amazing record—you all know that already, though, because you loved it when it came out instead of waiting 25 years to give it the attention it deserves. The title track (“Shadow Of The Season”) rang in my head for days while I was feverish with covid in early 2020, a fact which resonated heavily for me when Lanegan announced a book about his own covid experience: Devil In A Coma.
But Imitations—oh. my. god. Subtle, supple, rich & warm. The songs were living things, not the objects-under-glass some might be inclined to see them as in this late era. Imitations convinced me finally that Mark Lanegan was an artist for the ages, someone I would have to study closely.
Dylan was doing his Sinatra records around this time & it was a joy to compare Lanegan’s & Dylan’s versions of “Autumn Leaves”, Cale’s & Lanegan’s renditions of “I’m Not The Loving Kind”. It was a perfect record for our second rainy winter back in Seattle.
goodbye, goodbye to beauty
(don’t want to leave this heaven so soon)
I’ve listened to most of Dark Mark’s recordings since then, & as with many of my favorite artists, it always feels that he’s in the room, singing directly into my heart. It’s a skill some have, I suppose. Or maybe there’s something larger taking place that cannot be measured.
So many songs… So many worlds to explore…
“I Hit The City” & “When Your Number Isn’t Up” from Bubblegum, & omg “Methamphetamine Blues” is apocalypse on wax.
“I Am The Wolf,” “Harvest Home”, “No Bells On Sunday,” “Judgement Time,” “Two Bells Ringing At Once”…
His version of Dylan’s “The Man In The Long Black Coat” is every bit as strong as Bob’s own.
EVERYTHING on Straight Songs Of Sorrow, the disc that came out in tandem with Lanegan’s harrowing memoir, Sing Backwards & Weep. We listened to Sing Backwards on audiobook, something we never do, because Mark read it himself & we wanted to hear That Voice.
I’m not even going to get into his many collaborations… Or the two excellent remix collections that I know about (check out A Thousand Miles Of Midnight, which remixes the Phantom Radio LP to brilliant effect).
There does exist a many-record set of his early works for Sub Pop, back when he wrote songs on guitar & lived in Seattle & his life was an unholy mess. Each album is haunting, & each contains many gems. Miraculously, there’s only one off-note that I can recall from the entire set. Lanegan acknowledges it as such in his book. I feel better knowing he recognized a miss when he saw one.
Music to get lost in forever.
There’s a sharp division between Mark Lanegan’s early & later works, & that division is sobriety. It’s where his memoir ends—with an abrupt zag from Seattle’s jungle to L. A. rehab—& it’s where Bubblegum & Blues Funeral pick up the story, in a cacophony of drum machines & droning keys. His Later Works are brightly lit, even when they are dim. They are strong. The artist is confident, vibrant, present, no longer lost.
Thinking of that run of amazing later records, Nico comes to mind as a relevant performer. Especially her last two 80s LPs. Not too many others come to mind. It’s easy to pin things into genre holes, but for an artist truly committed to expressing their Self in the purest possible form, those square holes are never gonna fit.
til my last words drift away like moments from a dream
We had one final minor interaction. It took place on twitter, which seems appropriate since that’s where I found him back in 2012. He posted some ZZ Top, a link to one of their early 70s slow blues epics. I had a listen & wrote back—”so THAT’S where you got it!”—that moody murk that simmers like am iridescent hot spring forever.
Yes and these kinds of interactions are trivial & meaningless—right?—but it felt like a warm smile came with his reaction. It’s nice to be appreciated as an artist, sure, but it’s also nice to be seen & understood.
Sometime after that, in the American insanity of recent years, he moved to Ireland with his wife Shelley Brien. They started a band together—Black Phoebe—& released an excellent EP. He continued to collaborate prolifically by remote control. It sounds like a peaceful way to live. Something to aspire to.
Screaming out of the wastelands of Eastern Washington, this Wild Feral Thing finally found his way to peace.
(We can hope so, anyway.)
heaven doesn’t want me, it don’t want me no more
(& hell’s afraid I’ll take over)
& who the fuck am I? & what of it?
The guy touched my heart. His voice & lyrics & music got me through some rough times in my head. I thought he’d be around for a lot more years.
Thanks for everything, friend. I hope it was quick & painless.